I love the peculiar habit Small coppers have of walking head first down the stems of grasses.
If you happen to see a Comma butterfly on one of our fine autumnal days, have a good look at the colour of its wings. You may notice that both the upper and the undersides of its wings are quite dark, particularly when compared to some of the Commas you saw in the summer months. Why is that?
It may be that your paler summertime Comma was a hutchinsoni. The splendid Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies explains:
The Comma is known for a particular form named hutchinsoni that is much paler in appearance on both upperside and underside that the nominate form. This form is found throughout the butterfly’s range and is normally attributed to individuals that go on to produce a second brood in the same year. Its name is a tribute to Emma Hutchinson, a renowned Victorian entomologist … who ultimately discovered its double-brooded nature and the corresponding variation between broods. The name was announced by J.E. Robson in 1881 in The Young Naturalist: ‘The Summer form is so different, and so constant in its appearance, that it ought to have a distinctive name, and we suggest it be called var. Hutchinsoni, in compliment to the lady … whose knowledge of the species is not exceeded by that of any one living.’
In my photos, the Comma on the left, Polygonia c-album var. hutchinsoni, was photographed on 24 June, the Comma on the right on 17 September, both in the same location and on fine, sunny days. I think you can see how marked the difference in their colouring is.
One of the side benefits of searching the scabious for rare bees (see yesterday’s piece, Searching the scabious, 1) is that my search also revealed how many other insects were enjoying the essential late summer-early autumn food supply provided by the beautiful wildflower, Devil’s-bit scabious. Amongst them were these five butterflies and a moth: Large white, Red admiral, Small copper, Small tortoiseshell, Small white and a Silver Y.
And also these five hoverflies: Eristalis intricarius, Helophilus trivittatus, Sericomyia silentis, Volucella pellucens and Volucella zonaria.
My title says ‘inspection’ but I was tempted to invent a new word and write ‘insection’, as my inspection was really a personal challenge to see how many different insects I could find on the copious number of Common ragwort plants currently in bloom at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park. All except three of these photos were taken during one 45-minute period on Wednesday – the Small copper and two flies were seen the following day. The broad diversity of species just shows how important Ragwort is as a late summer food plant for insects.
To celebrate – or, perhaps, to mourn – the last calendar day of summer, here’s a tribute to some of the beautiful butterflies I’ve seen in recent days, just because, when they’re gone, I’m really going to miss their magic.
A Comma doing what they do so well when their wings are closed – blending in.
Most of the white butterflies I’ve seen lately have been Small whites so this Green-veined white stood out from the crowd.
Here’s another that stood out – an aberrant Meadow brown. There always has to be one!
The heat wave a couple of weeks ago seems to have brought in a small influx of Painted ladies, though nothing like the numbers we had last year.
Have you ever noticed how much Red admirals like blackberries? And their colours blend in to this background rather well.
Small tortoiseshells have been having a good year locally, which has been a real treat. I even found two feeding on Red valerian right at the edge of one of the local beaches this morning.
A delightful surprise from Saturday’s walk at Cosmeston, a pristine Small copper.
The local fields are ablaze with Common fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica), which the Plantlife website says has a
‘curious scent, with hints of carbolic soap and chrysanthemum, [which] is an insect repellent. In the past it was kept in houses specifically for the purpose of driving away fleas. Bunches were dried and burned as a fumigant or hung in rooms.’
Well, it may be the bane of fleas and it may act as an insect repellent when it’s been dried but, from what I can see, when it’s alive and fresh, most insects love it!
As well as that Speckled bush-cricket, I’ve found 9 species of butterfly and 1 moth nectaring on Fleabane flowers.
And then there are the hoverflies and assorted other flies, bees and bumbles. It’s more like a magnet than a repellent.
I had hoped the recent combination of southerly winds and heat wave would bring a wave of migrants to our shores and it did. The most exciting for me was the Clouded yellow butterfly. I saw my first on 10 August but, as is often the case with these beauties, their rapid flight can make them difficult to photograph, and this one flew over a fence into a shrubby area, disappearing immediately. My next Clouded yellow sighting came on 16 August, in a different location but with almost the same result – over the fence and gone! I managed to grab a single ‘record’ shot, below.
Then, last Monday 17 August, I got lucky. I did have to follow this Clouded yellow around a sizeable field, watching intently, not following too closely so as not to spook it, waiting for it to settle but, finally, it paused briefly to feed and I got my photograph. They are such lovely butterflies, so different from anything else in Britain – I just wished they lived among us.
Though second-brood butterflies are still looking pristine, many of the others are now well past their best, as life is tough for such fragile creatures. Some butterflies are so battered that I’m amazed they’re able to fly at all, yet this Gatekeeper and Ringlet were still moving from plant to plant.
Birds looking for an easy snack often attack butterflies and it’s easy to see the tell-tale signs of bird pecks on butterflies’ wings, like those on these: a Ringlet, Comma, Small copper and Peacock, and another Gatekeeper.
Is it the blazing sun that has caused this Essex skipper’s orange to fade so dramatically or has it lost most of its wing scales?
I’m 99% sure this is the same Brown argus, seen first on 1 August and again on 10 August. It already had some bird pecks when I first saw it but, nine days later, it was looking rather faded and more than a little ragged around the edges.
This Painted lady is looking battered, bird-pecked, faded and jaded, perhaps the affects of a long migration journey, or simply a tough life well survived.
In 2019, when I began keeping records of all my sightings and focused seriously on searching for and recording butterflies, I saw my first local Dingy skipper on 30 April and my last on 10 June. This year, I spotted my first on 6 May and what I thought was the last on 26 May, a relatively short season.
Then, remarkably, on 24 July, I saw a pristine, obviously newly emerged Dingy skipper, and I’ve seen two more this week, one on 4 August and another the following day. These are second brood butterflies, the product of the breeding of the butterflies seen in May.
In his brilliant book Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies, Peter Eeles write that ‘Good summers may … result in a partial second brood in southern England that emerges in late July and August (a second brood is the norm in Southern Europe), and this may become a more frequent and widespread phenomenon in Britain and Ireland with a changing climate’. It seems, here in south Wales, that phenomenon is already happening.